Expecting Too Much from the W.H.O.

The World Health Organization’s annual budget is roughly the size of a large hospital and one-fourth the budget for the C.D.C.

With these comparatively small funds, the W.H.O. must carry out its official mission of ensuring “the highest possible level of health” for “all peoples.” That includes eradicating diseases (such as smallpox and soon polio), facilitating research and cooperation (which recently gave us the first Ebola vaccine), promoting nutrition, setting universal healthcare and medical standards, and responding to emergencies like pandemics.

With this small budget, backed by its pleading for further funds, the W.H.O. has shipped more than two million items of personal protective equipment to 133 countries, and is preparing to ship another two million items in the coming weeks. Just a couple days ago, it delivered one million face masks, along with gloves, goggles, ventilators and other essential goods to Africa. More than a million diagnostic tests have been dispatched to 126 countries worldwide and more are being sourced as we speak.

As early as February, the organization brought together 400 of the world’s leading researchers (including from rivals the U.S. and China) to identify research priorities. It launched an international “Solidarity Trial” involving 90 countries, to help find effective treatment, and is currently running a “mega-trial” of the four most promising COVID-19 treatments and vaccines from around the world.

The W.H.O. has developed research protocols and guidelines that are being used in more than 40 countries. It got 130 scientists, donors, and manufacturers to commit to speeding up the development and delivery of a vaccine.

Through its innovative online “OpenWHO” platform, the W.H.O. pools together the world’s knowledge and best practices and delivers it to frontline personnel rapidly through an app. Users take part in social learning network, based on interactive, online courses and materials covering a variety of subjects. OpenWHO also provides a forum for the rapid sharing of expertise, in-depth discussion and feedback on key issues. So far, more than 1.2 million people have enrolled in 43 languages.

Again, all this for the cost of running a big hospital. While the U.S. does contribute one-fifth of the agency’s budget, this amounts to $893 million—a drop in the budget of our annual budget, which includes over $700 billion for the military alone. Talk about bang for our buck.

Moreover, we had pledged $656 million for specific programs, including polio eradication, health and nutrition services, vaccine-preventable diseases, tuberculosis, HIV—and preventing and controlling outbreak. And we’re still trying to do more damage to them.

Even as it launches another international mega-trial of the most promising treatments and vaccines, the U.S. is stubbornly refusing to take part.

Lawfare does a great job of breaking down how absurd our expectations of the W.H.O. are. While it concedes that the W.H.O. dropped the ball with China (something I also admit), it also reminds us of the far bigger and more complex picture regarding its relations with member countries (and the inherently political nature of health problems to begin with).

The work of the WHO is inherently technical; it does not need to make the sort of charged political decisions demanded of the U.N. Security Council, where the vital interests of different countries repeatedly conflict. Nor is it required to take a stance on the sensitive ideological values of different countries, as human rights organizations must. And because the WHO’s mission is narrowly defined in relatively objective terms, its performance can be evaluated with relative ease—for example, by using straightforward public health metrics. This ought to give WHO officials incentives to act appropriately and reduce the risk that countries are unable to discipline it if it fails to. The WHO’s leadership in the eradication of smallpox and in advances against polio seemed to validate this theory.


It is tempting to blame the WHO itself for its problems—its notoriously complex bureaucracy, its decentralized structure, its “culture” or the persons who run it. But all of those things are a result of the political constraints it operates under, as many reform-minded critics have observed. Big bureaucracies are established to guard against errors. In this context, this means staying away from actions that will offend member states whose support (financial or otherwise) is necessary for WHO’s operations. The sorts of bureaucratic reform that WHO insiders and sympathetic critics have called for over many decades would not protect the WHO from leaders like Trump.

It turns out that even the expert-led technical interventions of the WHO are politically charged. And this is not just because some countries want to hide disease outbreaks from the world. Countries also disagree about the problems that the WHO should focus on in the first place. The setting of priorities and allocation of resources among different public-health challenges are policy choices, not technical choices. The WHO is not an anti-pandemic organization or an infectious-disease organization: It is a health organization, and health policy is intensely contested around the world.

Many of the familiar cleavages in international politics had begun to pull apart the WHO long before the coronavirus pandemic. People disagreed about which health threats should be given priority, and the WHO found itself torn between governments, interest groups, activists and donors who wanted the organization to give priority to different things—HIV/AIDS and other infectious diseases, tobacco use, obesity, even climate change. And then there is intense disagreement about whether the WHO should give priority to developing countries and, if so, how much. The WHO has set itself the goal of correcting global health care inequality, which begins to seem like a redistributive program from north to south—the sort of thing applauded by academics and commentators but politically explosive, to say the least.

As I have previously argued, the W.H.O. doesn’t have the resources or power to stand up to any country, especially since virtually every country plays a role in its funding, governance, and the election of its director-general. If even most of the world is deferential to China—only fourteen nations officially recognize Taiwan instead—how can we expect an organization responsible for so much, with a small budget, few personnel, and no sovereign power, to somehow be any different.

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